Bill Simmons’ Grantland–incidentally, a recent convert to the WordPress platform–released a fascinating video through its YouTube channel late last week that has caused a bit of a stir. ‘The Finish Line’ is a serial documentary following two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash through his most recent treatments and rehab. Nash, 40, is approaching the end of his career. ‘Finish Line’ is a rare, intimate glimpse into the mind of an athlete who not only is at the twilight, but recognizes it; he is candid and open about the doubts that plague his mind, his determination to dig deep and mine what talent and skill is left in what might be a futile reach at relevance on a last-place Los Angeles Lakers team.
Steve Nash is signed through Spring 2015 and is contracted to earn about $19 million.
Nash has enjoyed an excellent 17-year basketball career, made a substantial amount of money on the court and off through endorsements, and the first installment ‘The Finish Line’ is nothing short of a breathtaking, eerie piece of documentary film-making about him. The existential crisis which comes when one’s mode of living is threatened is something that few people even have the courage to admit and confront, much less have it committed to digital celluloid for anyone with a decent interwebs connection to see.
We place athletes on a pedestal, this is particularly–and literally–evident as we continue to have the Winter Olympics unfold in Sochi (…well, except for that one ring during opening ceremonies, but that’s beside the point.) What the athlete does to maintain peak physical condition to perform his or her respective sport at the highest level commands respect, as well as considerable financial gain. (We’ll leave the ethical nature of the latter alone for the sake of this post.) When that conditioning fails, either through catastrophic injury or the sheer and merciless course of time, the checks stop coming, the retailers and brands stop calling for endorsements–Michael Jordan and scant few others excepted–and the last person usually to realize it is the athlete.
There is a certain vanity to paying a person for his or her physique and the talents that come with such physical prowess. I do not say that athletes are vain across the board, though there certainly seems to be ample evidence to make that conclusion, but that at its core, professional athletes are paid because they have the body. If another Laker, Kobe Bryant, breaks a leg, he cannot do his job; if I break my leg, I still need to go to work. If an athlete gets flu-like symptoms, they typically are shooed away from the clubhouse and stadium and still receive substantial remuneration for services left un-rendered. If you get a stomach ache, you’d better be barfing up a lung in your cubicle before someone will send you home.
Who can blame an athlete for becoming detached from reality or succumbing to the burden of vanity? If you were being paid to look good and work primarily for a part of the year, you’d give in to the shallow, too. It’s good work if you can get it. To put a ball in a hoop, to hit a small white ball where people aren’t, or another small white ball straight down a fairway while strolling some of the finest and most picturesque spots in the world. These privileged few are living the dream, and we freely pay to watch them do so, sometimes with equal parts envy and admiration.
Watching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the close of his career was equal parts powerful and pathetic, one of the dominant offensive forces of nearly three basketball generations outlasted his talent and his contemporaries only to get swept out of his career by the Bad Boy-era Detroit Pistons. Jordan, too, was a shell of his transcendent self in Washington, the fire still burned in his eyes, but to see him as a straight post-up tweener rather than the slashing menace who could score and stop scoring seemingly at will in Chicago was pure tragic Greek theater. Whom the gods would destroy, they first drive mad. Beauty, even dominant, transcendent beauty, fades. And in Jordan’s case, that faded beauty still delivered a whoopin’ to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
This is what makes Nash so compelling. He isn’t in the echelon with Jordan or Abdul-Jabbar or even positional contemporaries such as Isiah Thomas or John Stockton, though he is one of, if not the best 1s of his generation and will have a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame when his time comes. He sees the sand in the hourglass dwindling, and is playing out the professional Kubler-Ross stages for us all to see. Here, he is vulnerable, human and present. He still has the desire to work and work hard, his mind for the game is still sharp, but the body betrays him. Like so many of us at the end of our careers, our bodies give way before we do. Retirement for many of us isn’t a luxury–some of us youngish adults may never get the chance to–but a necessity. Health issues, children growing up and setting out on their own, spouses fading, many have no choice but to put themselves out to pasture.
Sport is our escape, a gate which keeps the existential barbarians out of the fortresses of our lives. To see an athlete cope with the fact that his life has been raided and is currently being pillaged is equal parts refreshing and disturbing. It’s nice to see an athlete be a human, but the fact that they’re only human only tells us how fragile our walls and gates are. We may not see it yet, but we all have a finish line, and we’re all running toward it.